As if finding one of the former Nintendo Game Counselors that helped me back in the day wasn’t treat enough, this time they found me! If you missed the first article about my lost Nintendo Power letters, go check it out, and then continue on with my interview with Kirk Starr, the ex-GPC that I happened to find while doing research for the first article. This time another ex-GPC, Kasey Curtis, found me and left a comment on the article. Kasey, like Kirk, also wrote me back when I was still young and playing and his letter is included in the Lost Letters collection. And you know I couldn’t let Kasey get away without asking him about his experience at the Big N too.
Back into the Nintendo time machine
If you read my first interview with Kirk, I asked Kasey some different questions and he provided some great insight to what it was like working at Nintendo. Think playing games for a living was all fun and candy? Well, it probably was, but it’s not without it’s rules and limits.
I can’t thank Kasey enough for playing along with the interview and making my trip through the NES Time Tunnel even sweeter. It was a shot in the dark to stumble across one ex-GPC, but two?! Anyway…check out the interview below and enjoy. And hey, if you’re an ex-Game Play Counselor or know one, send them this way. I’m all for collecting interviews from them all!
Interview with Kasey Curtis, Nintendo Power GPC
Morning Toast: You mentioned in your comment that you were just out of high school when you started at Nintendo. How did you come across the job and can you elaborate more on when in your life Nintendo happened (please include the years you were there)?
Kasey Curtis: My very first job out of high school was a logging job. I used a chainsaw to clear out trees in what is now a housing development in Duvall, Washington. That lasted as long as it took for a couple of them to fall on me and I was hospitalized. Probably some justice there; I was cutting them down, after all.
As I was recovering, living with a friend from high school, my friend discovered that this temporary staffing company (“Volt Temporary Services”) was hiring temps to staff a call center at Nintendo. I was really just getting into video games at that point. I can remember playing Super Mario and Legend of Zelda on my friend’s NES. So it was a no-brainer – work and play video games? Easy. We were both about 18 years old.
I started in December 1989. I worked about 5 months as a temp before Nintendo hired me and my friend on as permanent employees. I remember that getting hired on permanently was a big challenge for us. We called it “getting our NOA badge,” because permanent employees wore a badge that said “NOA” on it (Nintendo of America). Some people didn’t make it – remember, as 19 year olds, we didn’t have a lot of work experience to speak of and we were pretty immature. I ended up working for NOA until June 1994 – 4 and 1/2 years; to date the longest I have been employed in any single organization.
MT: Why do you think you got the job at Nintendo? Why did they pick you instead of someone else?
KC: They were trying to staff up their call center. We had a board which showed the number of people on hold, waiting to talk to a game counselor, and how long the longest person had been waiting. Sometimes, especially right after Christmas (which they called “hell week”) the wait times were far longer than I imagined anyone would want to wait on hold. The point is, coming through the temp agency, they were taking anyone they could. Those who were just too flaky, showing up late, etc., washed out and didn’t make NOA. As long as you were fairly responsible and were appropriate on the phone, they were likely to hire you.
I think a lot of kids I spoke to thought that people were lined up out the door to work for Nintendo, and only a select few made it. The reality is that the job wasn’t that hard to get, and as long as you were a good employee in all the standard ways, you kept it. I know a lot of guys who got fired, but it was for some pretty stupid or obvious things.
MT: What type of training did Game Counselor’s receive?
KC: When I started, I remember we got about two weeks of solid, 8-hours a day game playing time; no phone calls. We were in a room that had probably 25 playing stations. We had to finish Mario, probably Mario 2 (and 3? I don’t remember) Zelda, Link, and one or two others that got the most questions at the time. The training changed as new popular games came onto the market, but those are what I was trained on. After the two weeks, you went out to the phones.
MT: What type of gaming experience did you have prior to your job? Did it benefit you at all at Nintendo?
KC: When I was a kid, we had a Pong knock-off game, and I had played friends’ Atari 2600s. Then, like I said, I played Zelda. That was it. I guess video games came naturally, because I always had good hand-eye. I was not the best player, but probably above-average.
MT: I interviewed Kirk Starr prior about being a counselor and you mentioned you and him worked at the same time. What level of camaraderie was there between counselors and what other Nintendo employees did you mingle with?
KC: There was quite a bit, actually. Large groups of us all hung out together pretty much all the time. We were our own social group. I can’t speak for everyone, but that’s the way it was for me. I had roommates that were game counselors, dated a couple, etc. We had a bowling league going that was all-Nintendo, as well as a softball league. I knew Kirk, although I don’t remember hanging out with him a ton outside of work. I remember he was a very cool guy. A lot of us were metal heads – I think Kirk was in a band; I don’t remember. Like any social group, we had our own little soap operas going.
MT: Have you kept in touch with any of your co-counselors from back then?
KC: Only two. Two guys that I met, Mike and Bill, have remained two of my closest friends. Bill’s living in Chicago now, and Mike’s in Georgia. I only have about five friends that I consider life-long, best friends, and they’re two of them.
MT: I asked Kirk these same two questions, so I ask you, what was a “good” day as a Game Play Counselor?
KC: Getting off the phones. I’d be curious to know if Kirk said the same thing, but that was definitely the best times for a GPC. There were several projects that you could get hooked up with that would allow you some time away from the phones. For Kirk and I, it was getting into the Correspondence department where we could write letters, instead of talking on the phones.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s not like we hated people or something. You have to at least like people a little bit to do that job. It’s just that call after call, day after day, can really wear on you. Especially if you’re trying to get through a really difficult part of the game you’re playing. I think at least twice I’ve blurted out an obscenity while talking to someone because my guy just died when I ALMOST made it to the end of the level. I got away with it though.
MT: What was a “bad” day as a Game Play Counselor?
KC: Dumb people. I don’t intend to sound mean, but half of game players can get some basic help and move on in their game. The other half, well, probably should just enjoy the bright colors and fun music. Many times there is really nothing you can do to help; the player just needs to practice and keep trying. Not everyone understands that, however, and insist you’re holding out on them. Understand that most of us could get into a zone, where we’re playing our games and answering a lot of questions more or less automatically, having answered a jillion similar questions. If you have a caller who simply won’t get what you’re trying to explain to them, then you have to stop your game and figure out how to help them. It sounds kind of petty now that I describe it, but if you’ve never had to talk on the phone to people for 8 hours a day, it would probably be hard to understand.
MT: How did management determine if counselor’s were doing a good job or bad job? What type of standards were you held to?
KC: We were monitored fairly often. Our managers would tap in and listen to our phone calls. The standards were pretty basic; be nice to the people, show up to work on time, and don’t screw around. We would get rated on our knowledge, friendliness, and some other basic criteria.
MT: You mentioned in an e-mail that writing letters to kids like me was a coveted position for a counselor. How long did it take and what did you have to do to move from phones to letters?
KC: I was there probably a year before I got to do a project in the correspondence department. I had to take a writing test, to make sure I had grammar, syntax, and writing skills. And I was picked from a group of probably 20 different GPCs that tried out. After being in the Correspondence department for a while, I was administering the tests for new GPCs. I did some other projects, too. I was on a game testing team where we did quality evaluations for new games. That was pretty cool – getting to play games well before they came out. Better yet, we could say if they were total crap and people took our opinions seriously. I also got to participate in a Mall Tour that they did in 1992 or 1993, traveling to different malls around the country demonstrating some new games. I remember it was about the time that Street Fighter II came out on the SNES. I got to do some pretty cool things; I’d rate my Nintendo career as pretty good.
MT: Was there ever a time when you just couldn’t someone with a gaming question?
KC: All the time. Some games just take practice and skill, and you can’t give coordination over the phone. One thing that Nintendo was funny about was codes. They had trained us not to just give out codes. They didn’t stop us altogether, but just discouraged it. I think they wanted to preserve the aura of GPCs as skilled wizards, instead of automatons just giving out codes. Plus, they wanted to save codes for Nintendo Power magazine. It was a weird policy, but we all bought into it, and so GPCs would get a little insulted if a kid called up and just asked for codes. Luckily, in correspondence, they didn’t care. We gave out codes all the time.
I’m not sure why Nintendo was so fascist about codes. They acted like it spoiled the game, but I think codes add an extra dimension which enhances the enjoyment of games. Plus, games are a product you buy, you own the game, so why shouldn’t you get all of its features and capabilities? I enjoy playing games both with and without codes. It’s my game, so why not?
MT: Since it sounds like you and other counselors had to spend a lot of time on the phone, did you ever get calls from the same kid over and over?
KC: Sure, and not just kids. One thing that surprised me was the amount of adults that would call. Today it’s not so surprising, but back in 1990 I was surprised. There were probably 7 or 8 people that would call all the time, and that every GPC knew. Usually they had something very unusual about them. I remember one kid that called very often who had real anger issues, and he would throw fits on the phone. Something wrong with that boy.
MT: I unfortunately don’t have a scan of your Nintendo Power profile, but on a scale of 1 to 10, where would you rank your own mullet compared to others around Counselor’s Corner?
KC: Good question. In fact, maybe the best question you’ve asked (kidding). Mine was mid-range; about a 5. But mine was kept in a ponytail, and usually not longer than shoulder length. It was a Ponymullet.
MT: What was the coolest fan art you remember receiving and/or keeping? And do you still have any today?
KC: Didn’t keep any. Nintendo kept it. We did have the wall, though. I don’t remember any specific art – we’re talking almost 20 years ago.
MT: How did Nintendo choose which counselor’s tips would get published in Nintendo Power? Did everyone get a turn?
KC: Randomly, I guess. I remember we took pictures, but didn’t know when our pictures would be published until they were. We didn’t really write the tips, though. They were added by the magazine writers.
MT: For which games were you considered the expert amongst your Counselor peers? Were any of your tips ever published in Nintendo Power?
I had a couple of games that I was considered expert at. I made a point of finishing Solomon’s Key, because its difficulty was legendary, and at the time I was one of only a couple of GPCs that had finished it. I was wicked good at Solstice, and actually mapped out the entire game. I also mapped out Solar Jetman. These were never published in NP, but the maps were shared among the GPCs. We all had notebooks with our own notes and maps that we used as resource guides. It was kind of an unwritten competition to see who had the most resource-rich notebook.
MT: Which game secrets are you proudest of discovering yourself?
KC: I think I knew Solstice more thoroughly than anyone in history, other than its creators. Which is a dubious honor, because not everyone liked that game, but I thought it kicked ass. I loved the angled perspective and 3-dimensional game platform. The graphics were great, too. It was quite an advanced game for the NES.
I was also proud of the fact that all the GPCs held a 4-player tournament on NES Football. Me and my roommate Cliff teamed up and kicked butt up until the championship match, which we lost in a close game. Still, we could beat any other GPCs, which was pretty cool.
MT: And if you haven’t already answered this in a previous question, what was/is your favorite classic NES game and why?
KC: That’s a very hard question, because I liked different games for different reasons. I loved Lee Trevino’s Golf and Baseball Stars for sports games. In my opinion, Baseball Stars is still the finest, purest baseball game ever developed in a video game platform. The gameplay was brilliant in its simplicity and fun. When Street Fighter II came out, I burned many, many hours playing that with friends, so that would have to rank as one of my favorites, although it’s an SNES game. The Mega Man series were probably the best action games. Batman for the NES was one of my favorites. God, there were so many. I’m going to have to go with Baseball Stars. It was an SNK game that actually had a really limited release. I’d love to get my hands on one again.
MT: You mentioned you have now have an Xbox 360 and so it seems obvious you’ve kept your gamer status up to date. What current gen games and consoles do you think are doing things right? Which ones aren’t?
KC: I wouldn’t call myself a hard-core gamer, and in fact I haven’t played a PS3, GameCube or Wii. I love the graphics on XBOX 360, which is my main draw. Plus they have the Halo games which I love. I am dying to try a Wii. After many years of relative malaise and 3rd runner status, I think Nintendo really hit a home run there. Everyone who’s played it seems to love it, and they can’t keep it stocked in stores.
One thing that worked for Nintendo was keeping their “family friendly” status. I remember even when I was there this was important to them, even while Sega Genesis was going for more “edgy” stuff. As GPCs, we could never say “kill” your foe in the video game. We had to say “defeat” or “beat.” Imagine talking someone through Contra 3 and having to say “OK, now defeat 35 onrushing soldiers with your gun, and then use a grenade to defeat the boss.” The point is, Nintendo stuck with the family friendly stuff. Not that I care; I love violent, inappropriate video games. I’m just impressed that Nintendo kept to their core principals, took the loss in market share, and simply out-innovated the other guys with the Wii. Good for them.
MT: You said you spent four years at Nintendo. Was four years as long as one could stand being a counselor? Could you have stayed longer?
KC: I probably could have gone longer, but I wanted to try other things. I was getting restless. I know other people that stayed longer.
MT: Did your time at Nintendo lead to other jobs within the video game industry, or did you move in a different direction afterwards?
KC: Different direction for me. In fact, if you traced my career path, you’d never guess I ever got my start in video games (today I’m a consultant to the Department of Energy in Washington, DC). I know other guys stayed in the industry, though. In fact, whenever I finish a video game today, I always watch the end credits carefully. I almost always see a name I recognize from my years at Nintendo.
MT: Do you still include Nintendo on your resume today?
KC: I do; I probably shouldn’t, but I often still do. It was too long ago for me to keep using it, but it was an important time for me and I don’t have the heart to let it go.
MT: Do you look back at your time at Nintendo any differently now looking back and seeing how much cultural impact Nintendo made at the time?
KC: Sometimes I wish I had hooked up with Nintendo when I had a little more maturity. If I had my head on straight, I could have made my career in video games. As it was, I was just to anxious to try out other things.
I’ll say thing about my experience at Nintendo. I barely graduated from high school. I was a pretty classic class-clown, back parking lot-smoking metal-head stoner. I left high school with no inclination of going to college, and not even sure if I was good at anything. Then came Nintendo, where I was getting promotions, raises. I learned I had innate writing skills (I read a lot as a kid), that I could handle myself around educated professionals, and that I was out-performing a lot of my peers. I think of Nintendo like some people think of the Army; I learned some new skills and developed self-confidence and a belief in my own abilities. After Nintendo, I was like, “so why can’t I do college?” And that’s what I did. I put myself through community college part-time, transferred to a university and graduated, went on to graduate school and earned a master’s, and now consult for the U.S. government. This from a kid who barely graduated high school
You might be thinking, “well hell, Bush barely graduated high school, and he’s the f-ing President!” The difference is I didn’t come from wealth and privilege. No one in my family ever went to college, so wealth and success weren’t exactly a birthright. I really credit Nintendo for helping me discover things about myself, and giving me the confidence to reach for bigger and better things.
MT: If you don’t mind answering, what type of job are you doing now some 15 years after Nintendo? What other stops happened between then and now?
KC: My career after Nintendo was spotty. I did OK, but I didn’t stay in any industry very long. I was going to school part time, which is very tedious and discouraging because it takes you 5 years to get a 2-year education. I did different things, though. I played bass in a band for a couple of years. I doubt you’ve heard of the band – it was called Pearl Jam.
MT: The Nintendo Power profiles always included counselor’s hobbies. What things did your profile list then and have they changed since?
KC: I doubt that I reported any of my actual “hobbies” to NP. They weren’t exactly wholesome. I probably said softball and bowling, though, which was true. One thing that’s changed is that I’m very into soccer now – both playing and watching. I don’t feel like I’ve changed that dramatically since then, even though my life has changed tremendously. In my head I feel younger than I probably am. Video games might have something to do with that.
MT: Can you share the one good story that pops into your head whenever you talk about your time at Nintendo?
KC: When I started at Nintendo, I had the 4:00 AM to 1:00 PM shift. When you were new, you got the crappiest shifts. Needless to say, there were mornings when I was exceedingly tired. To make things worse, the phones didn’t really pick up until about 6 am, so there was a lot of time just sitting there waiting for the next call. And Nintendo’s free coffee tasted like battery acid. All the ingredients for nap time were there, I guess is what I’m saying. A couple of times, after I answered a call, and while the consumer was describing their problem, I dozed right off. Fell flat asleep. I woke up with a jolt, and realized from the airy sound on the earphones that the customer was still on the line, waiting for me to give an answer…and I had no idea even what game they were playing. In case I was being monitored, I couldn’t admit that I fell asleep on them. So instead, I tried to evoke clues out of them with questions like “well, what have you tried?” If they described it, the chances are good I’d hear something I recognized. If not, and I kept asking leading questions without ever figuring out the game, I trapped myself, because the longer I strung them along the harder it would be to confess.
Luckily I never got caught.
One more good story: on the Mall Tour, two GPCs went to help demonstrate the new games, and I was one of them. Street Fighter II was coming out on the SNES (we were promoting it prior to its release), and I had played it for the first time a few nights before our first stop in Cleveland. So when we set up the playing stations in the mall, kids were lining up to play SF2. I strolled up and said to a kid “so how would you like to play a game counselor?” thinking after a few nights playing made me good enough to show him up and demonstrate, once again, the power of the Mighty Game Counselor. Besides, I thought, it hasn’t even come out yet. Of course, I had forgotten that SF2 had been out as an arcade game for a couple of years already, and these kids had spent many, many quarters honing their skills. And so, this kid wiped the floor with me. Just tore me apart. With all these other kids standing around and watching. I mean, he royally humiliated me. So – one more notch was cut into the game counselor mystique, and I went back to demonstrating that bazooka-like game controller that Nintendo came out with.
Read more Tales from Counselor’s Corner
Kasey is just one interview in the GPC Hall of Fame here at Morning Toast. Make sure to check out and read the complete Tales from Cousnelor’s Corner anthology that includes more interviews and letters from Nintendo Power.